Saturday, December 26, 2009

Green Holiday Card - 2009

For several years now, I've been crafting three-dimensional "Peace Love Joy" cards for the holiday season. Assembled and hand-delivered, these little yearly pearls always seem to promote a warm feeling of, well - peace, love, and joy.

As a personal note, I love designing, fabricating, and assembling each year's card because it's a genuine outlet of pure creative expression without the parameters of a client's wish list, limitations of the contractor, budget, or the chance of a phone call with someone screaming on the other end about a roof leak. (The latter of which has, knock on cedar shake shingles, so far never transpired). This particular card is composed of a photograph I took of the rock wall at Camp Mitchell Chapel atop Mt. Petit Jean in Arkansas this past Thanksgiving. The graphics are mine - hand drawn.

Most of the cards that go out, however, are not already assembled and hand delivered; I create a master sheet with assembly instructions and email them all across the country and all over the world without using a drop of fossil-fuel. It's a simple concept with the added payoff of a little holiday craft project. Some people conscript young ones around the house (as well as the young at heart) to assemble the card, but most, I've found, love to put it together themselves. Can't help but bring you back to your childhood, if even for a moment.

Here's how it works: Print the card out on your personal printer - cardstock is best - or email the file to your local print shop and have them print out a color copy. Cut, tape, and assemble as instructed, and - voila! - a 3-D holiday card straight out of your computer.

If you haven't received a card and this particular card resonates with you, email me with a 'how-do-you-do' and I'll send you a printable file as long as you promise to accept it as a gift from me and not send it as your card or sell it to others - we're on the honor system here folks and I trust you implicitly. And if you'd like for me to personalize this card as your "whatever-occasion" card, or create a custom designed 3-D card, tell me what you're thinking about, and I'll send you a fee proposal. (I don't just design buildings and neighborhoods!) Email:

Peace, Joy, and Love to us all!

James Polk, Architect

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Spirit of Christmas All Year 'Round

Image: Movie still from the 1951 classic A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim
This week's newspaper column: Read it in the Hattiesburg American.
Everybody is buzzing now with the spirit of the holidays.

The Christmas season is when we Americans - no matter what race, religious affiliation (or none), and national origin – find a space in our busy schedules to come together and spend some quality time with family and friends. At Christmastime, we shower each other with gifts, plan parties, bake assorted sweet morsels, and find ourselves spontaneously wishing merriment to everyone we meet.

Petty grievances are set aside as diverse individuals congregate at family get-togethers and office parties. Disagreements fade as we find ourselves connecting with estranged acquaintances and saying nice things to people who we may otherwise secretly (or not so secretly) hold in contempt and avoid like the plague for eleven and a half months of the year. Festive decorations, over-the-top lighting, and Christmas carol soundtracks remind us to put away our hard feelings and celebrate the good in everybody.

All of a sudden, we seem to appreciate the value of “community.”

The young sage of Charles Dickens’ famous holiday classic of Christmas past, present, and future – Timothy Cratchit, better known as Tiny Tim – poetically captured this sentiment when, at the end of the tale, he exclaimed, “God bless us, every one!”

But how many times do we turn into hard-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge as soon as the tinsel is gone?

Scrooge epitomized an ethic of greed, distrust, and lack of respect for others, especially those he considered “beneath” him. His idea of a perfect society involved separating himself from people he found different, and thus, unappealing. His habit of demonizing those around him closed his eyes and ears to the value of each individual’s unique talents and contributions within the social fabric we vaguely refer to as community. In this cautionary tale, Scrooge’s intolerance, absent some not-so-gentle nudging from three convincing spirits, would have led to his undoing along with everyone else he so piously tried to bring down.

Sustainability is more popularly discussed in terms of physical objects - for example, green buildings – but the principles of sustainability apply quite adequately to the structure of our cultural and civic lives as well.

A sustainable community honors and respects diversity. Nature requires a wide variety of flora and fauna in the same ecosystem to remain healthy and viable. Nature honors and respects diversity; sustainable communities are no different. Demonizing those who have different backgrounds or ideas – a popular blood-sport in twenty-first century America – poisons the spirit of community and separates us as a culture.

Why not take this holiday spirit into the new year with the same energy and compassion? Try seeing the good in people first. Respect the differences in your neighbors, and, like Scrooge, you might wake up with a renewed love of life and a greater sense of “community.”

Too many devil’s advocates make life a living hell.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Where's Our Modern Day CCC?

This week's newspaper column. Read it in the Hattiesburg American.

Over the years, I, along with millions of fellow Americans, have enjoyed the fruits of an initiative born the better part of a century ago.

In 1933, the United States was mired in the midst of the Great Depression, and legions of Americans were unemployed and starving. As part of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps came into being for the purpose of putting able-bodied men to work.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, better known as the CCC, went about constructing park facilities including campgrounds, vacation cabins, recreational trails, mountain lookouts, picnic areas, and a host of other amenities throughout the United States. CCC crews planted over 3 billion trees, took part in extensive erosion control projects, built roads, and erected fire towers. Much of that infrastructure still graces our national landscape.

(To see examples of a few CCC structures, go to my blog – the New American Village – at

CCC crews also pitched in as a ready national resource fighting fires throughout the country, and providing relief and rebuilding services after a major hurricane in New England, blizzards in Utah, and several major floods.

But far from being a “make-work” program, the men of the CCC were taught literacy and construction skills. Their hand-crafted park buildings of indigenous materials – a very green method of building - stand out today as some of the most beautiful structures in our park system, and the durability of their work is self-evident by virtue of the vast and diverse inventory of CCC facilities still in use today. As the depression waned, and jobs returned to the private sector, the men of the CCC were in great demand because they possessed practical, demonstrated trade skills, and as one employer put it, “they knew how to put in a good day’s work.”

The CCC was an immensely popular program. A Gallup poll in 1936 indicated that 82 percent of the general public was in favor of the program, including overwhelming majorities from both Democrat and Republican respondents.

With recent reports that one in eight Americans currently rely on food stamps for some or all of their food, and with millions unemployed or underemployed, where is our modern day Civilian Conservation Corps?

Look around you; there’s plenty of work to be done. Instead of us, as a society, doling out unemployment benefits, why not fashion a renewed version of this wildly successful employment and training program?

It has been popular group-think of late to say “government programs are never the answer.” But after a decade of political momentum on the side of demonizing the government and casting our economic fortunes solely with the private sector, why are so many people now suffering?

Knee-jerk platitudes and ideological clich├ęs do not help build a country or put food on the table. The Civilian Conservation Corps, in fact, did just that.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

CCC Cabins

Holmes County State Park in Mississippi is just one of the many sites where the Civilian Conservation Corps built recreational cabins. I've vacationed in this park 4 or 5 times, and although newer cabins have been constructed around the corner, I always opt for staying in the CCC cabins.

As in all the CCC work of the 1930's, hand crafting is the norm creating a wonderfully rustic feel. In addition to providing jobs for the unemployed, the Civilian Conservation Corps focused on teaching construction skills. "Craft" - as a legacy of the apprenticeship way of learning - was celebrated, respected and nourished was a way of building. Combine this ethic with a lack of power tools and the result is wonderfully hand-crafted collection of structures with the feel of rustic charm seldom seen in contemporary building.

Thus, each constructed element a particular CCC site is unique, creating a variety of interesting "one of a kind" buildings even when floor plans are similar. And, every CCC site, by virtue of hand-crafting, has its own unique identity. What a wonderful way to celebrate the human spirit!